TOKYO — THREE of Japan's nearest neighbors have dealt it a double shock by legally infringing on Japanese-claimed territories.
China passed a law last week laying claim to five tiny islands held by Japan in the East China Sea, while South Korea successfully won the the right from Russia to fish off Japanese-claimed islands occupied by Russia.
Japan protested the moves to all three nations, but has done little else. In fact, officials have purposely played down the disputes, partly to avoid stirring up right-wing nationalists in Japan as well as anti-Japanese feelings in China and South Korea.
"The government is quietly disturbed," says Takashi Inoguchi, a China scholar at the University of Tokyo. "But for now, there's not much it can do."
"These incidents show that Japan's potential isolation in the world is very real," he adds. "Keeping good relations with China is a high priority at a time when relations with the United States are at a low ebb and relations with Russia remain a big question mark."
Japan may not have been the target of China's new maritime territorial law, officials speculate. Rather, the law may have just been a tactical move by Chinese reformists in a succession struggle under way in the country's leadership.
With a pivotal congress of the Chinese Communist Party due later this year, which may determine who replaces leader Deng Xiaoping, reformists who want to open China more to the West may have needed to shore up their credentials against conservative opponents, Japanese Foreign Ministry officials say.
The law claims China's rights to the uninhabited Diaoyutai Islands (known as the Senkakus in Japan), which lie about 210 miles off China and 180 miles west of Okinawa. These were incorporated by Japan in 1896, and then held by the US after World War II until returned to Japan in 1972 along with Okinawa.
China began to state a historical claim to the islands about 1970 when they drew interest as a potential source of fish and offshore petroleum. But Chinese leaders indicated the dispute might be better solved in the distant future.
Another reason for Japan's muted response is that Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin is due to visit Tokyo in April, while Japan's Emperor Akihito is expected to visit China around Sept. 29 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of normalization between the new two nations.
"Japan wants to soft-pedal any frictions with China until after anniversary," Dr. Inoguchi said.
While both visits may prove awkward for Japan in light of China's legal grab for the islands, Foreign Ministry spokesman Masamichi Hanabusa pointed out the obvious reality: Japan actually exercises effective control over the islands.
Japan directed its ire last Friday mainly at South Korea. "We cannot help but regret that you have made a decision which appears to be acknowledging Russian claims [to the islands] without prior consultations with Japan, a friend of your country," Nagao Hyodo, a ranking Foreign Ministry official, told a South Korean Embassy official.